Before I married, my mother gave me six dish towels. “Here,” she said. “I received a dozen of these when I was married, and I want you to have some.” She and my father married in June 1955. The towels had had some use, but I think my mother mostly kept them aside, not wanting to wear them out.
All the towels had Sunbonnet Girl appliques made from pieces of my mother’s old dresses, dresses she wore in high school and college. Her mother made the towels for her.
My grandmother was quite a seamstress in her younger years, and she made many of my mother’s clothes, up through my mother’s high school and college years. She made these dresses for her daughter, then turned the scraps into Sunbonnet Girl appliques. Sunbonnet Girls (also known as Sunbonnet Sue) were popular in the 1950s, and date back at least to the start of the twentieth century. The Internet still offers patterns that use them.
My mother graduated from high school in 1951 and from college in 1955. I remember her wearing some of the clothes that these scraps came from (my recollections date back to 1958). And other pieces of these same materials were in the basket of scraps that my grandmother and I played with—she and I sewed little outfits for a doll I called “Sewing Doll.” I wasn’t very imaginative in naming my dolls.
Because of the associations I have of my mother wearing these fabrics and of sewing with my grandmother, I treasure these dish towels. Over the years, I used the towels sometimes. But after I had children, I put four of the six towels aside. I decided that when my children were grown, I would give them the remaining towels. I kept using the two towels that had pieces of dresses I remembered best.
In October 2019, my son got married. For Christmas 2019, I gave him and his wife two of the dish towels I’d set aside, and I sent the other two to my daughter.
My children can do what they want with the towels I’ve given them. After all, the sentimentality of these things dissipates with each generation. There will be no reason for my children to keep ancient dish towels.
I continued using the two towels I kept for myself. Of course, I had other dish towels, but I used these most of the time, because they made me remember my mother whenever I dried dishes. (There isn’t much else that’s nice about that chore.)
A few months ago, I noticed the two dish towels I kept had several holes. I almost cried. I was thankful the holes weren’t near the Sunbonnet Girl appliques, but still, the towels were becoming rags.
Then I realized—these towels were made sixty-six years ago. The dress appliques are probably seventy years old or older. They’ve been used. Their cotton is righteously frayed. If the towels were human, they’d be on Medicare. Perhaps they’ve earned retirement.
I’ve set aside these two dish towels and I no longer use them. At some point, perhaps I will cut out the Sunbonnet Girl appliques and save those scraps of my mother’s dresses. I don’t know what I’ll do with them. Perhaps I will make pillow covers, or frame them as wall hangings. No one other than me now remembers my mother wearing these dresses, but I do, and I won’t be able to throw them out.
I know my kids will throw them out when I am gone, or even before, but I will keep them as long as I can.
What do you hang onto, even though it’s worn out?
Theresa is the award-winning author of historical fiction about settling the American West. Before she turned to writing, Theresa was an attorney, mediator, and human resources executive.
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